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Community journalism’s just fine, thanks

Posted: February 7, 2014 3:34 p.m.
Updated: February 10, 2014 5:00 a.m.

It all started when I posted a link to an opinion piece on the Poynter Institute’s website titled “Why is local news innovation struggling financially while national thrives?” Here’s the comment I made when I posted the link on my Facebook page:

“Here’s an idea: have local people produce quality local news stories for people to read about the community they live in? Hmm, might be too revolutionary.”

One local reader adroitly commented that I was “very good” for using the term “revolutionary” in a post from Camden. I only now have the heart to say that it was totally unintentional.

In the article, Poynter staffer Steve Waldman points to several pieces, including The New York Times’ David Carr writing that “Web News is Thriving.” The evidence? That former Washington Post staffer Ezra Klein has moved over to Vox Media. That’s in addition, Waldman says, to “the success of BuzzFeed, Upworthy and the Huffington Post” that “has showed that content oriented sites can be business successes.”

Waldman then goes on to mourn the layoffs and closing of Patch sites by AOL (see my column, “Patch never matched local news,” Aug. 19, 2013); the loss of Main Street to bankruptcy last year; the closing of Village Sup in 2012; and the general malaise of “traditional local media.”

I posted my initial comment on Feb. 4. A few days later, Feb. 7, a man I very much respect chimed in. Doug Fisher is a senior instructor at the University of South Carolina’s journalism school and writes a blog (tied to his own Facebook page) called Common Sense Journalism.

Fisher pointed out to me that at one point in his missive, Waldman stated, “Better ad targeting means local businesses no longer need ads alongside locally produced content. Let that sink in for a moment. The better the targeting gets, the more marginal the local content creators will become.”

Waldman, Fisher points out in an entry on his own page, wrote a recent report to the Federal Communications Commission on local news making that statement.

On my Facebook page, Fisher wrote that the cycle of local advertisers marrying themselves to quality local content is being “short-circuited” by “Internet giants.” He wrote, “...it’s about cost-efficiency, and that then dilutes the local pool of revenue publications like yours rely on.”

I replied, telling Fisher my initial and even snarkier reaction to Waldman’s piece was “Of course; the national news media have all the money,” even despite the losses of the last 20 years. Going back to the actual answer I wrote, though, I said that I don’t think “Internet giants” are “getting” local news. Heck, even regional news outlets, such as TV stations, aren’t getting their facts straight. How often have you seen a “local” TV station really mess up a story from Kershaw County? Often, quite frankly.

I then said, “Anyway, my hope is and my belief continues to be that local advertisers appreciate that local newspapers are the one place they can be sure to get local eyeballs because community papers are telling the local stories. No one is telling Kershaw County’s stories the way we do; no one is telling those kind of stories in community after community here in South Carolina like our peers across the state. Therefore, I’m not so sure the ‘Internet giants’ will totally win in the end because they can’t match that targeted advertising to the stories only we can tell.”

Fisher replied saying that Waldman’s claiming there’s a significant number of advertisers that “don’t care” about local news if they can reach more eyeballs through Facebook and Google. He then pointed to another Poynter post, this one about a comment made by “Internet pioneer” Marc Andreessen that “The problem with local news is most people don’t care.”

I, of course, vehemently disagreed with that sentiment. In fact, in reading primarily Waldman’s comments, I couldn’t help telling Fisher that I wondered what everyone means by “local news” when they write things like this.

“I think they mean mid- to large-level dailies as opposed to truly community newspapers like ours. I’m not saying we’re not seeing erosion, but I wonder where it’s really eroding to. Facebook? Other social media-type outlets?” I asked.

The reason Patch and Main Street Connect didn’t work is that the national media conglomerates have always had a problem trying to drill down to telling local news stories. Either the writers don’t live in the places they’re writing about, they have poor journalistic training, little experience or some combination of all three.

Waldman was also talking about local news startups, as opposed to established outlets like ours, I pointed out as well.

At one point, Waldman states that “venture capitalists and other professional investors” aren’t interested in locally-focused news. Of course, “There’s not enough eyeballs for them that way,” I said. Where such ventures succeeded, Waldman uses the Boston Globe and Washington Post as examples. Hardly community journalism outlets in my book.

Ironically, in the middle of his analysis, Waldman asked “Perhaps local news has to be done locally?” Am I allowed to say “Duh” at this point?

Look, no one in the business of print news has been immune from the changes of the last decade or so, including the C-I. However, as I pointed out to Fisher, those changes are affecting us far more slowly, allowing us the time we need to adjust. I’ve said before that I think, eventually, we may be a primarily digital-focused business. I’ve also said that could be years from now.

Fisher responded by saying, “...that’s not a newspaper hanging from your customers’ belts.” And he’s right. I use my iPhone and laptop to gather news far more than I do from any print product.

My primary point to Fisher, though, is that I know people in Kershaw County care about what’s going on in their community. You tell us that every day, in lots of different ways.

One of the best ways you can is to support our advertisers, and tell them you learned about their services or products through us. In a community like ours, word of mouth means everything. Let’s prove to the “Internet giants” that we’re a true community, right down to our local newspaper.

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